Online Resource Guide to Alternative Fuels for Automobiles

Concerns about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment prompted scientists to search out alternative transport fuels. About 80 percent of the fuel in use today is gasoline, made from petroleum. It’s cheap, readily available and safe. Most vehicles on the road today get good performance from gasoline, so it’s tough to give up. Most 20th century gas contained lead. Cars switched to unleaded fuel later in the century, but carbon emissions were still a problem, even with one or two catalytic converters processing engine emissions into less dangerous ones. Hydrogen, nitrogen, diesel, liquid petroleum and compressed natural gas, electricity and other biofuels are viable, but expensive alternatives to gasoline. Most alternative fuels currently in use on eight million vehicles worldwide use alternative blends, but refueling stations can be tough to find.

Air Engine

The term air engine is deceiving as no vehicle can run on air alone. Running an air car as an alternative to gasoline means that you must use a mechanical compressor to drive your car engine’s pistons. Compressed air expands as the compressor releases it. Air-driven cars will be lighter and cheaper. They won’t be pollution-free however. When the car hits 35 mph, an alternative fuel driven motor will kick in, but it will still run cleaner than a gasoline-powered car. Air power is good for short commutes only, usually less than 100-120 miles. There is a safety issue: compressors are dangerous, so if you have an accident, your compressor has to release the remaining air safely. Most prototypes designed now are designed to crack, not blow and shatter.

Battery Electric

Unlike hybrids that run on a combination of gasoline and electricity, electric cars run on electricity alone. Scotsman Robert Anderson built the first electric vehicle in 1839. It wasn’t until 1897 that electric cars were “mass-produced” in the United States. Hartford, Connecticut’s Pope Manufacturing built 500 before the turn of the century. Recent studies have electric cars forecast to account for over 60 percent of car sales in the United States by 2030.

Ammonia (NH3)

Not yet out of the test phase, but with a patent pending, ammonia looks to be a viable fuel alternative. A University of Michigan graduate student has built an NH3 truck that is being used for demonstration purposes for possible investors. It runs on ammonia only or on an 80/20 ammonia/gasoline mix. It has been reported to get 27 mpg and drastically cuts carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. One possible problem is that the commercial ammonia that farms use as fertilizer would have to be mass-manufactured. A secondary problem is that ammonia is one of the key ingredients drug dealers steal off farms to make methamphetamine.

Biofuels - Bioalcohol/Ethanol, Biodiesel, Biogas, Hemp

Produced from agricultural resources, biofuels, such as corn-based ethanol (E85) can be used alone or combined with conventional fuel. Biodiesel/diesel usually runs in 5/95 and 20/80 biodiesel/diesel ratios, although it is legal to use in any ratio. No special equipment is needed to use biofuels in your vehicle. However, you will need to check with your engine manufacturer warranty to make sure that the warranty won’t be voided should you decide to use biofuel in your vehicle. Keep in mind diesel fuels are winter-friendly, either. There are around 700 biofuel, nearly 2,500 Ethanol and over 300 flex fuel filling stations throughout the United States.

Geothermal Energy

The heat within the Earth is called geothermal energy. This makes it an inexhaustible energy supply because it is renewed continuously from the Earth’s interior. Geothermal systems require heat, water and permeability—the ability for a substance to pass through a porous medium—to be useful as fuel. Hot springs are a type of geothermal process—a reservoir of energy continually bubbling through the surface of the earth. Scientists hope that by harnessing and replacing fossil fuels with this type of energy that it will be a viable alternative energy resource for vehicles.


Charcoal continues to be an energy mainstay in poverty-stricken countries. As an alternative fuel for vehicles in the United States, it isn’t considered viable or “green.” Charcoal is a major source of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Don’t look for it as an alternative energy source for your car.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

Made of 95 percent methane, compressed natural gas is clean burning, odorless, colorless, non-toxic and tasteless. It is flammable, but narrowly so, making it safe to use for vehicles with no threat to land or water from accidents or emissions. CNG is high-octane, so it is great for older model fuel-spark engines. Newer engines are more complicated and converting them to CNG is difficult. CNG powers over 12 million vehicles worldwide, but just 112,000 in the United States, perhaps due to just 1,100 fueling stations nationwide. The worldwide CNG use growth rate is over 30 percent, while the U.S. has seen just less than four percent growth. CNG vehicles have been around since WWII.


The most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen can be produced from existing fossil fuels, biofuels and water. It’s a fully renewable energy force, virtually pollution-free and has been considered a viable alternative energy source since 1992. The energy released in 2.2 lbs. or one kilogram of hydrogen is nearly equal to the energy found in one gallon of gas. The greatest issue regarding using hydrogen to fuel your car is that the tank would have to be very big—larger than most car trunks.

Liquid Nitrogen Gas

Some proponents consider liquid nitrogen gas to be a challenger to hydrogen as an renewable alternative fuel. Liquid nitrogen is cost-effective, readily available as 78 percent of the air we breathe consists of nitrogen. Liquefying nitrogen for vehicle use would utilize a cryogenic engine system as nitrogen becomes liquid at extremely low temperatures, giving another meaning to “cool car.” In such a system, ambient heat would change the liquid nitrogen back into a gas, expanding it. The resulting emissions would simply be nitrogen, which is reintroduced into the atmosphere. It is combustion and emission free, but not yet a reality.

LPG (Autogas)

Liquid petroleum gas is produced through pipeline natural gas and when crude oil is refined. It’s normally a gaseous mix of light hydrocarbons (water and carbon), but turns into liquid at increased pressure and lowered temperature. Like natural gas, it is odorless; so for safety reasons, a malodorous compound, mercaptan, is added so that leaks are detectable by smell. LPG is made up of propane, propylene and butane, each of which undergo separate reactions when combusted. When converted to gas, LPG expands 270 times, so liquid is the most convenient form to store and works best with vehicles. LPG greenhouse gas emissions are 15 lower than gasoline and needs no octane boost to perform well.


Steam is produced by geothermal energy produced in geothermal reservoirs. The earliest steam engines were produced in 1665 and were popular until the late 19th century. Those “steamers” were known to complete an 85-mile round trip in around 10 hours. In a poll conducted at America’s first National Auto Show, held in New York in 1900, steam-powered vehicles were second only to electric-powered vehicles in consumer choice for cars, although their efficiency rating was only six percent. By 1913, starters were added to engines to use gasoline and steam-powered vehicles were all but wiped out.

Wood Gas

Produced by “gasification” wood gas or biogas is also known by the process of incomplete or choked combustion. Think of running your car engine rich, which is the air/fuel ratio going to the combustion chamber. This is the same thing—you break apart the fuel, but there’s not enough oxygen so burnable gas exits the exhaust. It isn’t a viable engine fuel yet, but may serve as an emergency alternative.

Wind Power

Unless you put a sail on your car, wind alone will not keep you on the road. Wind powers electricity and electricity powers your vehicle, alone or in tandem with another alternative fuel source. As of June 2011, the U.S. had no offshore wind farms and use only about two percent wind power for electricity. This is far behind Denmark’s 20 percent and Germany’s seven percent. Don’t look for wind turbine power to give your vehicle a boost down the highway any time soon, although Texas, got the first wind-powered cars in the U.S. in April 2011.

Flexible Fuel

Flex fuel vehicles have both an engine and a fuel system. The system uses both ethanol and gasoline. There are over 10 million flex-fuel vehicles on U.S. roads today. Flex fuels were developed to reduce America’s dependence on petroleum. There are currently 200 ethanol-producing plants in 26 U.S. states. Flex fuels burn cleaner and have higher octane, currently reducing carbon monoxide emissions by nearly one-third. Next generation flex-fuel vehicles are slated to reduce emissions by up to 85 percent. More than a half-million Americans work in the flex-fuel industry.


Hybrids use more than one propulsion system to move a vehicle—usually an electric/gasoline combination. Hybrids generally enjoy greater fuel economy and greater power than their gasoline only counterparts. Hybrids offer better acceleration at lower speeds. Hybrids are more efficient because they use regenerative braking that minimizes the energy needed to stop or slow down; they have lighter engines and overall vehicle weight. Hybrid autos are readily available and often can convert to simply electric or gasoline operation.

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